Practical Aspects of Mindfulness Training at ITP

A course I teach at ITP, Mindfulness, and material on mindfulness in life I have written about in three books (Waking Up; Living the Mindful Life; and Mind Science), is designed to introduce our graduate students to the two basic kinds of formal meditation practice, concentrative meditation and insight (vipassana) meditation, and to bring increased moment-to-moment perceptiveness and mindfulness into the students’ everyday lives and relations with others.  As various forms of meditation are central in just about all spiritual traditions, transpersonal psychologists should have a basic familiarity with the techniques, a familiarity that is experiential as well as intellectual, and many will go on to extensive practice of various meditation techniques as part of their own spiritual growth.  Knowing how to bring mindfulness into everyday life is also very valuable for everyone, not just transpersonal psychologists and psychotherapists: when we walk about in a partial daydream – waking “sleep,” as Gurdjieff called it – we misperceive reality and others and create a lot of useless suffering as a consequence.

I’ve always been very pleased that I can give ITP students a taste of meditation and mindfulness in life in a single quarter course, and even more pleased when I hear back from them after the course is over that they are sometimes able to apply these techniques in useful ways.

I recently got a communication from a former student, while traveling in China, that dramatically illustrated how useful these techniques can be, even to someone who is undergoing an exceptionally stressful period of life.  With her permission, I have excerpted her report here as an illustration of what is possible.

Meditation techniques — body scans, sensing listening looking

The most immediate and daily-applicable skills I learned from the course are meditation techniques, specifically, body scans. After practicing the techniques repeatedly in class exercises, I became more or less adept at using them to manage stress and anxiety. At the time of the course, the stress and anxiety level in my life accelerated to intolerable degrees due to a divorce. I experienced anxiety attacks almost everyday; during the 15-20-minute attack episodes my heart raced until I was nearly passing out. Sleep became difficult; I could manage at most two hours at a stretch at night, and only from extreme exhaustion. The rest of the time I lay awake with heart pounding and skin turning cold. It was primal fear, beyond rational comprehension. During those weeks, I came to understand the literal meaning of the expression “scared to death”.

So it was a fortunate coincidence that I signed up for Mindfulness at this time. I’d had no previous experience with meditation, nor much knowledge of what the course exactly taught. The reason I took the elective class was Prof. Tart’s academic prominence at the school.

The first dose of relief from meditation came at night. Whenever awaking with a pounding heart, at the first awareness of consciousness, I tried scanning my arms and legs, hands and feet. At first it would take me up to a minute to really feel a body part distinctly; with practice the sensations came more quickly. The scans did not take away the fright completely; however it took off enough of its edge that I could drift back to sleep after a while. This made a significant improvement in the quality of my sleep, and my life.

As the class went on we learned other techniques as well; one of the more useful for me was “sensing, listening, looking”. The sensing part I already did regularly. Adding “listening” to the meditation, from the very first time I tried it, was a fairly powerful boost in the grounding effect – the moment I listened mindfully I could feel the attention and energy shifting to the world happening all around me. These days I don’t use “listening” very often, only occasionally when I feel the need for this extra “boost” of mindfulness. I practiced “looking” a few times when the course introduced the material. By following the book’s direction on it, I did experience its awesome power.

I even led a few half-hour sessions with my friends (none of them was familiar with meditation techniques) covering the full “sensing, listening, looking” routine. They all reported “feeling fully alive”, which was my exact experience.

(Note from China: Yesterday, my car got packed into a monster traffic jam in a tunnel five miles before the port, where we’d depart for our destination island. For a while the driver and I sat in the dark tunnel surrounded by 18-wheel freight trucks bound for the busy harbor, the road surface torn up by heavy use. We couldn’t see much ahead – the traffic situation or the tunnel length. I had to meditate to control the claustrophobia. It is perhaps no coincidence that Buddhism and meditation had their beginning in Asia –there is often no place to hide amidst the crowd, noise and dust. The only place of calm is to be found inside.)

Awareness of automatic programming and reaction

From the course readings I gained an awareness and perspective for the automatic programs running in all of us. In one of the weekly journals I wrote about an incident involving the birthday party for my son William, when W (my ex) wanted me to excuse myself from the party so Z (his girlfriend) could co-host with him. My old machinery, when similar buttons were pushed, would’ve operated like this: 1) fight with W for the injustice, and/or 2) cancel the event all together. I succeeded in doing neither. I attended the event for William, observing W and Z putting on the show as host and hostess. I knew that my son cared only about his mother and father being both present, that he was indifferent to Z’s presence.

I’d always been keenly aware of W’s unresolved anger toward me for leaving him, yet the knowledge seemed powerless in stopping me from reacting to his “triggers”.  It was as if the program took on a life of its own regardless of underlying rational knowledge. That day, aware of my program, I was able to override the program and held the right actions for my son’s benefit. Although maintaining complete equanimity was difficult, applying meditation techniques did help in reducing the degree of discomfort. What I was able to accomplish that day gave me a huge boost of confidence. Knowing all reactions as nature’s program, I can let whatever feeling run its course without necessarily taking the actions. I have a choice. Knowing the same is true for other people’s feelings and reactions, understanding (even compassion) becomes easier. I now see other people’s words and deeds more as a reflections of their programming than as directed at me, so I no longer take things as personally.

(Note from China: This passages takes on new meanings from the perspective of China, where the Confucian concept of 忍 (sound: ren, meaning to endure, to tolerate) is a long touted virtue. It’s similar to the idea of “stuffing one’s feelings” in the West, except in the West it has a slightly negative meaning. Personally I’ve always rebelled against “ren”, as I believe it sucks life out of our human spirits. The more “enlightened” route to “ren” should be understanding and compassion, by being aware of the machinery and program in all of us. “Ren” is thus achieved through equanimity, which is a Buddhist concept. Throughout China’s long history, Confucianism and Buddhism have battled each other as the favorite tool of the rulers governing over a massive, mostly uneducated, population.) ….

One comment

  1. Dr Tart, last night I had an experience that I really wasn’t prepared for. A spiritual sort of experience. My initial reaction was along the lines of “Stop it! I don’t want this! If this is spiritual, I don’t want to be spiritual!”. I couldn’t make it stop.

    You had mentioned before that taking notes was a good thing to do when having these experiences. I remembered that and took it as encouragement to do that in this situation. At the very least it is hard to stay frightened while taking notes. Admittedly, some of my descriptions were not exactly done with equanimity, but at least I kept writing.

    It really did help. I got through the experience in one piece and things are OK. Taking notes wasn’t just a distraction to keep me from panicking, it also helped me figure things out a bit. So thank you for the encouragement!

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